When a child comes into your life (however that happens for you and whatever relationship you have to that child), the natural instinct is to share with her or him everything about the world that you find beautiful and, simultaneously, to forewarn and forearm the little one against societal pitfalls.
My friend Kim’s son Noah (my unofficial “nephew” – I practically cried when Kim asked me if Noah could call me “Auntie Ann,” and not just because I now can claim the name of a famous pretzel chain for my own) is barely seven months old and I’m already plying him with children’s books. Goodnight Moon at the baby shower, The Runaway Bunny for Christmas, and thanks to a friendly seller at Women and Children First in Chicago, I’ve discovered the newer Llama Llama series.
Since my own child-bearing days are well down the road and, by virtue of my entrance into the dating world, I’m in fact in the midst of the ‘God, aren’t men awful’ stage of my life, my dream is to use my aunty powers to craft Noah into a caring, conscientious, feminist boy.
So, I’ve been Googling. And it seems that my options break down into two generalities.
Gender-role conscious parents/caring adults have option A, the blatantly feminist children’s books, such as the Girls Are Not Chicks Coloring Book and the “Spratz!” kidzine. By and large (and please correct me if I’m wrong), these seem to rely mainly on the irony that is a cartoonish ballerina declaring, “No one wants to fight patriarchy alone. Make friends.” – a subtle humor that would appeal to feminist parents rather than their Gloria Steinems in the making.
And then there’s option B, the subtle ‘grrl power’ track. Here, you’ll find books like the Madelines and Paper Bag Princesses of our youth (not to mention a personal favorite, Patricia Wrede’s The Enchanted Forest Chronicles featuring the stunningly independent princess Cimorene). And, if you run through your own nostalgic picks, simply turn to sites like the Amelia Bloomer Project, which creates an annual booklist of the best feminist books for ages birth through eighteen.
The Amelia Bloomer criteria for a “feminist book” is multi-layered, but suffice to say it requires its female characters to take on “nontraditional roles” and “blaze new trails for themselves and those who follow them” as well as for the book’s narrative to highlight the difficulty or atypical nature of such activity. The Bloomer books run a middle ground between Option A and Option B – giving parents the best selections from both; 2011’s list included both the Girls Are Not Chicks coloring book discussed above and books like Stagecoach Sal, which reflect the trend towards female-friendly children’s historical fiction.
Becoming a socially-conscious feminist is a life-long journey where you never stop reading and learning and taking action. Don’t get me wrong, I watched Disney Princess movies and played with Barbies and I loved them (still do – if I’m telling the honest truth). But my formative years were balanced between these traditionally feminine models and the, if I may, kickass girls who boldly went where no woman had gone before.
I can’t point to a single book or series that made me pro-choice or inspired me to take on equal-pay issues – I don’t think inspiring the minds of our young girls and boys is that simple. Sure, once in a while, a watershed moment comes along in the form of a Marlo Thomas Free To Be You and Me. But rarely does a whole generation formulate its philosophy on the basis of a singular work.
But, especially on International Women’s Day, we’re not ending on a despairing note over here at Halfway to a Mid-Life Crisis. We won’t throw up our hands and stop buying our children books because we can’t be sure which ones they read ultimately matter. As a true lover of the written word, I can tell you with absolute certainty that they all do. Each story that enters your heart leaves taking a piece of you with it. The author Elizabeth Stone famously said, “Making the decision to have a child – it’s momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.” For a person who gives themselves over to a love and appreciation of the power of reading, the same can be said. Hundreds, probably thousands of books have my heart and I can only wish for the women and girls celebrating International Women’s Day this March 8, 2012 a similar fate. This will be how we build a future to be proud of.